Jonah Goldberg

The right side of history is bunk.

In domestic politics, people (mostly liberals) tend to say, "You're on the wrong side of history" about social issues that are breaking their way. It's a handy phrase, loosely translated as, "You're going to lose eventually, so why don't you give up now?"

Philosophically, the expression is abhorrent because of its "Marxist twang" (to borrow historian Robert Conquest's phrase). The idea that history moves in a predetermined, inexorable path amounts to a kind of Hallmark-card Hegelianism. Marx, who ripped off a lot of his shtick from the philosopher Hegel, popularized the idea that opposition to the inevitability of socialism was anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. The progression of history is scientifically knowable, quoth the Marxists, and so we need not listen to those who object to our program. Later, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others would use this reasoning to justify murdering millions of inconvenient people. It was a "God is on our side" argument, minus God.

In fairness, I doubt Barack Obama and John Kerry have Marx or Hegel on the brain when they prattle on about the right and wrong sides of history. They more properly belong in what some call the "Whig school" of history, coined in 1931 by historian Herbert Butterfield. The Whiggish tendency in history says that the world progresses toward the inevitable victory of liberal democracy and social enlightenment. Again, I doubt Obama and Kerry have ever cracked the spine of Butterfield's book.

Still, this administration has used the "wrong side of history" phrase more than any I can remember. They particularly like to use it in foreign policy. In his first inaugural, Obama declared, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Ever since, whenever things haven't gone his way on the international scene -- i.e., on days that end with a "y" -- he or his spokespeople have wagged their fingers from the right side of history.

Lately, Obama and Kerry have been talking a lot about how Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is on the "wrong side of history." Before that, Obama announced that Putin was on the wrong side of history for supporting the Assad regime in Syria. He also said that Assad himself was on the wrong side of history. And so on.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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